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Chief Robert Joseph remembers his days at a residential school in Alert Bay. Photo by Samantha Rideout

A time to heal

Residential school survivors give voice to painful memories at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s sharing circle in Winnipeg

By Samantha Rideout

“When I left school, I was like a raging bull,” said Chief Robert Joseph, one of many residential school survivors who testified publicly at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s sharing circle yesterday afternoon. “I was so angry, but I didn’t know where to direct my anger. I became an alcoholic. I didn’t know how to raise my family.”

In front of hundreds of witnesses at the Forks in Winnipeg, Joseph described the disorientation and loneliness he experienced at residential school in Alert Bay, B.C. He missed his parents, and although his sister attended the same school, their contact was mostly limited to waving at each other in the cafeteria.

Like the other speakers, Joseph made it clear that his school years had a long-lasting impact on his life. “I’m 70 now, and it’s taken almost all that time to share some of these secrets — painful, degrading secrets,” he said with a catch in his voice, before alluding to sexual abuse at the hands of two different people.

But for all the tears that were shed, the sharing circle had an atmosphere of warmth and sanctity. Volunteers drifted around serving the participants fresh water. Young kids passed a soccer ball back and forth outside. And the smell of sweetgrass smoke from a smudging ritual wafted gently through the tent.

In the centre of the sharing circle sat a medicine box, a symbol both of the damage that has been done and the hope that it can someday be healed. Medicine boxes, I learned, are made to hold objects with healing properties.

Survivor Albert McLeod told an allegorical story about a group of healers who came together from every direction to break stones, extract medicines from them and mix these medicines together. The result was a medicine a hundred times stronger than anything they’d had before they met.

“We are the medicine that is gathered in from every direction,” McLeod said. “And at these ceremonies, we have people who can open the stones and take the medicine out.”

The circle’s moderator, Clément Chartier, administered a bit of the so-called best medicine: laughter. “I have some compensation news that’s going to make some of you very happy,” he joked. “If you ever tried to run away from school, the government is now going to pay for your mileage. At federal rates.”

Sharing stories was good medicine, too, according to some survivors, even though the sadness in their voices revealed how hard it was to do so.

Charlene Belleau’s voice broke as she spoke about her grandfather, who committed suicide at school and was not given a proper burial because of the way he had died. But her relief at talking about it was clear. “We’ve been working for this day for 30 years,” she said as a friend sympathetically placed his hands on her shoulders. “And now that we have a voice, we can start breathing again. We can start living again.”

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